Those Who Walk Away from Omelas

In The Brothers Karamazov, after numerous examples of the torture of children and other horrors, Ivan Karamazov rejects theodicy with this argument:

“Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it’s beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge your answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature — that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance — and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

Ivan’s argument is that a decent human being would not be willing to bring good out of evil in the particular way that happens in the universe, and therefore much less should a good God be willing to do that.

I will leave aside the theological argument for the moment, although it is certainly worthy of discussion.

Ursula Le Guin wrote a short story or thought experiment about this situation called The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas. There is supposedly a perfectly happy society, but it all depends on the torture of a single child. Everybody knows about this, and at a certain age they are brought to see the child. Two very different responses to this are described:

The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.

Often the young people go home in tears, or in a tearless rage, when they have seen the child and faced this terrible paradox. They may brood over it for weeks or years. But as time goes on they begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom: a little vague pleasure of warmth and food, no doubt, but little more. It is too degraded and imbecile to know any real joy. It has been afraid too long ever to be free of fear. Its habits are too uncouth for it to respond to humane treatment. Indeed, after so long it would probably be wretched without walls about it to protect it, and darkness for its eyes, and its own excrement to sit in. Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science. It is because of the child that they are so gentle with children. They know that if the wretched one were not there snivelling in the dark, the other one, the flute-player, could make no joyful music as the young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight of the first morning of summer.

Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible? But there is one more thing to tell, and this is quite incredible.

At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.

Some would argue that the ones who walk away are simply confused. In the real world we are constantly permitting evils for the sake of other goods, and as a whole the evils included here are much greater than the torture of a single child. So Omelas should actually be much better and much more acceptable than the real world.

This response however is mistaken, because the real issue is one about the moral object. It is not enough to say that the good outweighs the evil, because a case of doing evil for the sake of good remains a case of doing evil. This is a little more confusing in the story, where one could interpret the actions of those who stay to be merely negative: they are not the ones who brought the situation about or maintain it. But in Ivan’s example, the question is whether you are willing to torture a child for the sake of the universal harmony, and Ivan’s implication is that if there is to be a universal harmony, God must be willing to torture people, and in general to cause all the evils of the world, to bring it about.

In any case, whether people are right or wrong about what they do, it is certainly true that we are much more willing to permit evils in a vague and general way to bring about good, than we are to produce evils in a very direct way to bring about good.

We Didn’t Really Mean It

The Holy Office later published an interpretation of its 1897 ruling on the letter of John:

At this response there arose on June 2, 1927, the following declaration, at first given privately by the same Sacred Congregation and afterwards repeated many times, which was made a part of public law in EB n. 121 by authority of the Holy Office itself:
“This decree was passed to check the audacity of private teachers who attributed to themselves the right either of rejecting entirely the authenticity of the Johannine comma, or at least of calling it into question by their own final judgment. But it was not meant at all to prevent Catholic writers from investigating the subject more fully and, after weighing the arguments accurately on both sides, with that and temperance which the gravity of the subject requires, from inclining toward an opinion in opposition to its authenticity, provided they professed that they were ready to abide by the judgment of the Church, to which the duty was delegated by Jesus Christ not only of interpreting Holy Scripture but also of guarding it faithfully.”

It seems reasonable to take this more or less at face value. However, it is not really an interpretation of the meaning of the earlier ruling, but rather of its motive, and one that basically undercuts the original ruling.

Why was it necessary for this interpretation to be given privately “many times” before it was published? The original ruling essentially said that one could not even call the authenticity of the text into question. This would leave people who desired to be obedient to the ruling with no alternative but to firmly assert the authenticity of the text. Since many Catholic scholars could see that this went against the facts in manifest ways, there were consequently many who appealed in private for an interpretation which would permit them to question the authenticity of the text.

Even if we accept the basic honesty of the explanation, however, the original ruling exists in a broader context, of which the 1909 Pontifical Biblical Commission statement on Genesis is one example, which suggests a more general idea: the “audacity of private teachers” is doing damage to the Church, and therefore such audacity must be repressed. Regardless of whether repression was the correct response, the first part was true: damage was indeed being done. Audacity however was no necessary part of this process, since seeking the truth would do just as well.

Truth and Culture

Just as progress in technology causes a declining culture, so also progress in truth.

This might seem a surprising assertion, but some thought will reveal that it must be so. Just as cultural practices are intertwined with the existing conditions of technology, so also such practices are bound up with explicit and implicit claims about the world, about morality, about human society, and so on. Progress in truth will sometimes confirm these claims even more strongly, but this will merely leave the culture approximately as it stands. But there will also be times when progress in truth will weaken these claims, or even show them to be false. This will necessarily strike a blow against the existing culture, damaging it much as changes in technology do.

Consider our discussion of the Maccabees. As I said there, Mattathias seems to suggest that abandoning the religion of one’s ancestors is bad for anyone, not only for the Jews. This is quite credible in the case in the particular scenario there considered, where people are being compelled by force to give up their customs and their religion. But consider the situation where the simple progress of truth causes one to revise or abandon various religious claims, as in the case we discussed concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses. If any of these claims are bound up with one’s culture and religious practices, this progress will necessarily damage the currently existing culture. In the case of the Maccabees, they have the fairly realistic choice to refuse to obey the orders of the king. But the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have any corresponding realistic choice to insist that the world really did end in 1914. So the Jews could avoid the threatened damage, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot.

Someone might respond, “That’s too bad for people who believe in false religions. Okay, so the progress of truth will inevitably damage or destroy their religious and cultural practices. But my religion is true, and so it is immune to such effects.”

It is evident that your religion might true in the sense defined in the linked post without being immune to such effects. More remarkably, however, your religion might be true in a much more robust sense, and yet still not possess such an immunity.

Consider the case in the last post regarding the Comma. We might suppose that this is merely a technical academic question that has no relevance for real life. But this is not true: the text from John was read, including the Trinitarian reference, in the traditional liturgy, as for example on Low Sunday. Liturgical rites are a part of culture and a part of people’s real life. So the question is definitely relevant to real life.

We might respond that the technical academic question does not have to affect the liturgy. We can just keep doing what we were doing before. And therefore the progress of truth will not do any damage to the existing liturgical rite.

I am quite sympathetic to this point of view, but it is not really true that no damage is done even when we adopt this mode of proceeding. The text is read after the announcement, “A reading from a letter of the blessed John the Apostle,” and thus there is at least an implicit assertion that the text comes from St. John, or at any rate the liturgical rite is related to this implicit assertion. Now we might say that it is not the business of liturgical rites to make technical academic assertions. And this may be so, but the point is related to what I said at the beginning of this post: cultural practices, and liturgical rites as one example of them, are bound up with implicit or explicit claims about the world, and we are here discussing one example of such an intertwining.

And this damage inflicted on the liturgical rite by the discovery of the truth of the matter cannot be avoided, whether or not we change the rite. The Catholic Church did in fact change the rite (and the official version of the Vulgate), and no longer includes the Trinitarian reference. And so the liturgical rite was in fact damaged. But even if we leave the practice the same, as suggested above, it may be that less damage will be done, but damage will still be done. As I conceded here, a celebration or a liturgical rite will become less meaningful if one believes in it less. In the current discussion about the text of John, we are not talking about a wholesale disbelief, but simply about the admission that the Trinitarian reference is not an actual part of John’s text. This will necessarily make the rite less meaningful, although in a very minor way.

This is why I stated above that the principle under discussion is general, and would apply even in the case of a religion which is true in a fairly robust sense: even minor inaccuracies in the implicit assumptions of one’s religious practices will mean that the discovery of the truth of the matter in those cases will be damaging to one’s religious culture, if only in minor ways.

All of this generalizes in obvious ways to all sorts of cultural practices, not only to religious practices. It might seem odd to talk about a “discovery” that slavery is wrong, but insofar as there was such a discovery, it was damaging to the culture of the Confederacy before the Civil War.

Someone will object. Slavery is actually bad, so banning it only makes things better, and in no way makes them worse. But this is not true: taking away something bad can certainly makes things worse in various ways. For example, if a slaver owner is suddenly forced to release his slaves, he might be forced to close his business, which means that his customers will no longer receive service.

Not relevant, our objector will respond. Sure, there might be some inconveniences that result from releasing the slaves. But slavery is really bad, and once we’ve freed the slaves we can build a better world without it. The slave owner can start a new business that doesn’t depend on slavery, and things will end up better.

It is easy to see that insofar as there is any truth in the objections, all of it can be applied in other cases, as in the case of liturgical rites we have discussed above, and not only to moral matters. Falsity is also a bad thing, and if we remove it, there “might be some inconveniences,” but just as we have cleared the way for the slave owner to do something better, so we have cleared the way for the formation of liturgical rites which are more fully rooted in the truth. We can build a better world that is not associated with the false idea about the text of John, and things will end up better.

I have my reservations. But the objector is not entirely wrong, and one who wishes to think through this line of argument might also begin to respond to these questions raised earlier.

Modernism Responds to Pius X

Earlier I quoted Pope Pius X against the Modernists:

4. But since the Modernists (as they are commonly and rightly called) employ a very clever artifice, namely, to present their doctrines without order and systematic arrangement into one whole, scattered and disjointed one from another, so as to appear to be in doubt and uncertainty, while they are in reality firm and steadfast, it will be of advantage, Venerable Brethren, to bring their teachings together here into one group, and to point out the connexion between them, and thus to pass to an examination of the sources of the errors, and to prescribe remedies for averting the evil.

Pius X proceeds to begin to lay out the doctrines of the modernists as “firm and steadfast,” and as a systematic whole:

5. To proceed in an orderly manner in this recondite subject, it must first of all be noted that every Modernist sustains and comprises within himself many personalities; he is a philosopher, a believer, a theologian, an historian, a critic, an apologist, a reformer. These roles must be clearly distinguished from one another by all who would accurately know their system and thoroughly comprehend the principles and the consequences of their doctrines.

Agnosticism its Philosophical Foundation

6. We begin, then, with the philosopher. Modernists place the foundation of religious philosophy in that doctrine which is usually called Agnosticism. According to this teaching human reason is confined entirely within the field of phenomena, that is to say, to things that are perceptible to the senses, and in the manner in which they are perceptible; it has no right and no power to transgress these limits. Hence it is incapable of lifting itself up to God, and of recognising His existence, even by means of visible things. From this it is inferred that God can never be the direct object of science, and that, as regards history, He must not be considered as an historical subject. Given these premises, all will readily perceive what becomes of Natural Theology, of the motives of credibility, of external revelation. The Modernists simply make away with them altogether; they include them in Intellectualism, which they call a ridiculous and long ago defunct system. Nor does the fact that the Church has formally condemned these portentous errors exercise the slightest restraint upon them. Yet the Vatican Council has defined, “If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema” (De Revel., can. I); and also: “If anyone says that it is not possible or not expedient that man be taught, through the medium of divine revelation, about God and the worship to be paid Him, let him be anathema” (Ibid., can. 2); and finally, “If anyone says that divine revelation cannot be made credible by external signs, and that therefore men should be drawn to the faith only by their personal internal experience or by private inspiration, let him be anathema” (De Fide, can. 3). But how the Modernists make the transition from Agnosticism, which is a state of pure nescience, to scientific and historic Atheism, which is a doctrine of positive denial; and consequently, by what legitimate process of reasoning, starting from ignorance as to whether God has in fact intervened in the history of the human race or not, they proceed, in their explanation of this history, to ignore God altogether, as if He really had not intervened, let him answer who can. Yet it is a fixed and established principle among them that both science and history must be atheistic: and within their boundaries there is room for nothing but phenomena; God and all that is divine are utterly excluded. We shall soon see clearly what, according to this most absurd teaching, must be held touching the most sacred Person of Christ, what concerning the mysteries of His life and death, and of His Resurrection and Ascension into heaven.

As I remarked in the earlier post, Pope Pius X’s condemnation is sweeping and general, and surely many of the people who possessed many of the attitudes that the Pope considered modernist did not in fact embrace a systematic view such as the above. In a Modernist response, anonymous just as those accused by the encyclical are anonymous, one or some of the modernists responded to the encyclical (taken from the opening of this book):

A document so weighty, both in substance and form, as the Encyclical which we have reproduced at the end of this book; an attempt so deliberate to present “Modernist”* views to the public under a false and unfavorable light; a condemnation so authoritative of us Modernists as dangerous foes of Christian piety and unconscious promoters of atheism, make it a duty, which we owe to our own conscience, to the collective conscience, of the faithful, and to an anxious and expectant public, to lay bare our whole mind without reserve or concealment. We cannot possibly remain silent under the violent accusation which the chief authority of the Church, albeit recognizing us as her faithful subjects and as resolved to cling to her till our last breath, heaps upon our head. Hence there is nothing arrogant in our reply, since it is an elementary principle of justice for those who are accused to defend themselves; nor can we believe that this right has been taken from us at a moment so critical for the fortunes of Catholic Christianity.

They remark in the note on the name “Modernist”:

Let us say, once and for all, that we use this term only that we may be understood by those who have learnt it from the Encyclical, and that we do not need a new name to describe an attitude which we consider to be simply that of Christians and Catholics who live in harmony with the spirit of their day.

The following chapter begins to comment on the “systematic arrangement” laid out by Pius X:

First of all we must lay bare an equivocation by which inexpert readers of the Encyclical might easily be misled. That document starts with the assumption that there lies at the root of Modernism a certain philosophical system from which we deduce our critical methods, whether biblical or historical; in other words, that our zeal to reconcile the doctrines of Catholic tradition with the conclusions of positive science springs really from some theoretical apriorism which we defend through our ignorance of scholasticism and the rebellious pride of our reason. Now the assertion is false, and since it is the basis on which the Encyclical arranges its various arguments we cannot in our reply follow the order of that fallacious arrangement; but we must first of all show the utter emptiness of this allegation, and then discuss the theories which the Encyclical imputes to us.

In truth, the historical development, the methods and programme of so-called Modernism are very different from what they are said to be by the compilers of Pascendi Gregis.

So far from our philosophy dictating our critical method, it is the critical method that has, of its own accord, forced us to a very tentative and uncertain formulation of various philosophical conclusions, or better still, to a clearer exposition of certain ways of thinking to which Catholic apologetic has never been wholly a stranger. This independence of our criticism in respect to our purely tentative philosophy is evident in many ways.

First of all, of their own nature, textual criticism, as well as the so-called Higher Criticism (that is, the internal analysis of biblical documents with a view to establishing their origin and value), prescind entirely from philosophical assumptions. A single luminous example will suffice–that furnished by the question of the Comma Johanneum–now settled for ever. In past days when theologians wanted to prove the doctrine of the Trinity they never omitted to quote from the Vulgate (1 John v. 7): “There are three that bear record in Heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost.” Now the italicized words are lacking in all the Greek MSS. of to-day, cursive or uncial, and in all the Greek epistolaries and lectionaries, and in all the ancient translations, except the Vulgate, in the works of the Greek Fathers and of other Greek writers prior to the the twelfth century, in those of all the ancient Syrian and Armenian writers, and in those of a great number of the Latin Fathers. This silence of East and West is all the more remarkable as the passage would have been of priceless value in the Arian controversy. That it was not then appealed to, proves that it did not exist at the beginning of the fourth century. Moreove, a collation of MSS. and their comparison with the works of the heretic Priscillian, discovered a few years ago, makes it clear that the verse in question comes from Spain, and was fabricated by that heretic (A.D. 384) in favour of his trinitarian views, of which Peregrinus made himself the propagandist. Now it is plain that in order to arrive at such a conclusion and to study such a literary problem critically, no sort of philosophical doctrine or presupposition is required. The same can be said of a whole host of biblical and historical problems whose impartial solutions, leading to results so different from those of traditional Catholic criticism, are the true cause of that revolution in religious apologetic which we find forced upon us by sheer necessity. Does one really need any special philosophical preparation to trace a diversity of sources in the Pentateuch, or to convince oneself, by the most superficial comparison of texts, that the Fourth Gospel is a substantially different kind of work from the synoptics, or that the Nicene Creed is essentially a development of the Apostles’ Creed?

The modernists have the better of the argument here. One might say that this kind of argument regarding the Comma involves philosophical presuppositions only by making arguments like, “This presupposes that our memory is valid,” “This presupposes that these manuscripts really come from those times,” “This presupposes that the others who have studied this question were being basically honest,” and so on. But these things are really just common sense, not some special philosophy. Nor are they even premises, in general, in the sense that my memory of drinking coffee this morning is not a premise in an argument that I drank coffee this morning; I simply assert that I did, and my memory is an efficient cause of my statement, not an argument for it.

The modernists bring up this example not as an irrelevant detail, but because it was precisely the kind of thing they were criticized for. Thus we have this from the Acta Sanctae Sedis in 1897 [this document, page 637]:

« Utrum tuto negari, aut saltem in dubium revocari possit
« esse authenticum textum S. Ioannis, in epistola prima, capo V,
« vers. 7, quod sic se habet: Quoniam tres sunt, qui testimonium
« dant in coelo: Pater, Verbum et Spiritus Sanctus: et hi tres
« unum sunt? »
Omnibus diligentissimo examine perpensis, praehabito que
DD. Consultorum voto, iidem Emi Cardinales respondendum
mandarunt: « Negative ».

The decree asserts that the authenticity of the text cannot be safely denied or even called into doubt. Now I have previously discussed such decrees. These should never be understood as attempting to settle the truth of the matter definitively. Rather they are making a rule: you are not allowed to deny this or even to call it into question.

Pope Pius X complains in Pascendi:

Finally, and this almost destroys all hope of cure, their very doctrines have given such a bent to their minds, that they disdain all authority and brook no restraint; and relying upon a false conscience, they attempt to ascribe to a love of truth that which is in reality the result of pride and obstinacy.

For Pope Pius X, calling into question the authenticity of the Comma would be “the result of pride and obstinacy,” because one questioning it would be in disobedience to the above decree. But given the kinds of arguments that are involved, it is easy enough to see why the people questioning it would ascribe this rather to a love of truth.

All of this might call to mind earlier debates. Here is Philip Gosse, quoted at length in the linked post:

I am not assuming here that the Inspired Word has been rightly read; I merely say that the plain straightforward meaning, the meaning that lies manifestly on the face of the passages in question, is in opposition with the conclusions which geologists have formed, as to the antiquity and the genesis of the globe on which we live.

Perhaps the simple, superficial sense of the Word is not the correct one; but it is at least that which its readers, learned and unlearned, had been generally content with before; and which would, I suppose, scarcely have been questioned, but for what appeared the exigencies of geological facts.

Now while there are, unhappily, not a few infidels, professed or concealed, who eagerly seize on any apparent discrepancy between the works and the Word of God, in order that they may invalidate the truth of the latter, there are, especially in this country, many names of the highest rank in physical (and, among other branches, in geological) science, to whom the veracity of God is as dear as life. They cannot bear to see it impugned; they know that it cannot be overthrown; they are assured that He who gave the Word, and He who made the worlds, is One Jehovah, who cannot be inconsistent with Himself. But they cannot shut their eyes to the startling fact, that the records which seem legibly written on His created works do flatly contradict the statements which seem to be plainly expressed in His word.

Here is a dilemma. A most painful one to the reverent mind! And many reverent minds have laboured hard and long to escape from it. It is unfair and dishonest to class our men of science with the infidel and atheist. They did not rejoice in the dilemma; they saw it at first dimly, and hoped to avoid it. At first they believed that the mighty processes which are recorded on the “everlasting mountains” might not only be harmonized with, but might afford beautiful and convincing demonstrations of Holy Scripture. They thought that the deluge of Noah would explain the stratification, and the antediluvian era account for the organic fossils.

A parallel passage could easily be written on the opposition between Pope Pius X and the modernists. While I don’t have a source at hand at the moment, it seems that Alfred Loisy did state after his excommunication that he had secretly been an atheist for many years. There is no way of knowing, however, whether this is true in a literal sense or was simply his own retrospective analysis of his past state of mind. In any case, it is quite sure that many of the modernists were not secret atheists, but simply men like the geologists in Gosse’s passage. Conflict came to light between the actual facts of geology and the current understanding based on the text of Genesis, and something had to be said about that conflict. In a similar way, in the modernist controversy, conflict came to light between the actual facts of history and the current understanding based on the Church’s traditions, and something had to be said about that conflict.

Gosse complains that the geologists are classed with “the infidel and the atheist,” in effect for their recognition of geological facts; Pius X accuses the modernists of secret agnosticism or atheism, in effect for their recognition of historical facts.

In both cases, the accusation is that an atheistic metaphysics, and likely an atheistic epistemology, comes first, and is responsible for the conclusions that are drawn. And in both cases the accusation is false. Epistemology cannot come first in principle, and it does not come first in practice in these cases. You might be able to argue that these people have ended up with a mistaken epistemology, and you might be able to argue that it does not follow from the facts from which they have drawn it. But they have drawn it from facts, mistakenly or not, and not the facts from the epistemology.

This is ultimately why, despite the lack of firm definition of the term “Modernism,” the controversy has remained until this day. This is why accusations of modernism continue to be thrown around, as a few years ago when Bishop Fellay accused Pope Francis of modernism:

What Gospel does he have? Which Bible does he have to say such things. It’s horrible. What has this to do with the Gospel? With the Catholic Faith? That’s pure Modernism, my dear brethren. We have in front of us a genuine Modernist…

If one wishes to criticize the views which are characterized as “modernist,” whether in the early 20th century or now in the 21st, one will make no progress without the acknowledgement that it was first the consideration of certain facts that led to those views, rightly or wrongly. Attributing them to some general system is simplistic and wrong.

Ezekiel Bulver on Descartes

C.S. Lewis writes:

In other words, you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became to be so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going the write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father – who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third – “Oh, you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

In the post linked above, we mainly discussed “explaining how he came to be so silly” in terms of motivations. But Ezekiel Bulver has a still more insidious way of explaining people’s mistakes. Here is his explanation of the mistakes of Descartes (fictional, of course, like the rest of Bulver’s life):

Descartes was obsessed with proving the immortality of the soul and the existence of God. This is clear enough from his own statements regarding the purpose of the MeditationsThis is why he makes, “I think, therefore I am,” the fundamental principle of his entire system. And he derives everything from this single principle.

Someone who derives everything from such a thought, of course, is almost sure to be wrong about everything, since not much can actually follow from that thought, and in any case it is fundamentally misguided to derive conclusions about the world from our ideas about knowledge, rather than deriving conclusions about knowledge from our knowledge of the world.

While Bulver includes here a reference to a motive, namely the desire to prove the immortality of the soul and the existence of God, his main argument is that Descartes is mistaken due to the flawed order of his argument.

As I suggested above, this is even more insidious than the imputation of motives. As I pointed out in the original discussion of Bulverism, having a motive for a belief does not exclude the possibility of having an argument, nor does it exclude the possibility the argument is a strong one, nor does it exclude the possibility that one’s belief is true. But in the case under consideration, Bulver is not giving a cause rather than a reason; he is saying that Descartes has reasons, but that they are necessarily flawed ones, because they do not respect the natural order of knowing. The basic principle is the same: assume that a man is wrong, and then explain how he got to be wrong. The process appears more reasonable insofar as reasons are imputed to the person, but they are more exclusive of the person’s real reasons, while motives do not exclude any reasons.

As we have seen, Bulver is mistaken about Descartes. Descartes does not actually suppose that he derives his knowledge of the world from his knowledge of thought, even if he organizes his book that way.

 

Knowing Knowing is Secondary

It would be a mistake in general to suppose that one could derive all important truths from a few first principles, but one particular way to fall into this error would be to think that one can or should derive metaphysics or other branches of scientific or philosophical knowledge from epistemology. One reason for this is implied by the previous post: insofar as we come to know knowledge from a knowledge of the known or knowable, it is never possible to begin by thinking about knowledge, but one must begin by thinking about things.

Descartes’s discussion of the scenario of the evil demon appears to be an example of this error, insofar as he seems to suggest that his first knowledge is of the fact that he is thinking something. In fact, it is quite evident that one must know oneself in order to have the thought, “I am thinking,” and that one would never think about thinking without first thinking about something else.

Still, Descartes’s adoption of this error is only partial. He does realize that this is not the natural order of coming to know. Thus in the Synopsis of his Meditations he says:

Finally in the Sixth I distinguish the action of the understanding from that of the imagination; the marks by which this distinction is made are described. I here show that the mind of man is really distinct from the body, and at the same time that the two are so closely joined together that they form, so to speak, a single thing. All the errors which proceed from the senses are then surveyed, while the means of avoiding them are demonstrated, and finally all the reasons from which we may deduce the existence of material things are set forth. Not that I judge them to be very useful in establishing that which they prove, to wit, that there is in truth a world, that men possess bodies, and other such things which never have been doubted by anyone of sense; but because in considering these closely we come to see that they are neither so strong nor so evident as those arguments which lead us to the knowledge of our mind and of God; so that these last must be the most certain and most evident facts which can fall within the cognizance of the human mind. And this is the whole matter that I have tried to prove in these Meditations, for which reason I here omit to speak of many other questions which I dealt incidentally in this discussion.
Descartes cannot be excused from error here insofar as he asserts that “the knowledge of our mind and of God” are “the most certain and most evident facts” that we can know, but he does realize that people do not actually deduce the existence of an external world from the fact that they think. This is why he admits that such things “never have been doubted by anyone of sense.”

Knowing Knowing and Known

In his work On the Soul, Aristotle points out that knowledge of powers depends on the knowledge of activities, and knowledge of activities depends on knowledge of the objects of the activities:

It is necessary for the student of these forms of soul first to find a definition of each, expressive of what it is, and then to investigate its derivative properties, &c. But if we are to express what each is, viz. what the thinking power is, or the perceptive, or the nutritive, we must go farther back and first give an account of thinking or perceiving, for in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does precedes the question, what enables it to do what it does. If this is correct, we must on the same ground go yet another step farther back and have some clear view of the objects of each; thus we must start with these objects, e.g. with food, with what is perceptible, or with what is intelligible.

A little thought will establish that this is entirely necessary. In order to have a general knowledge of the power or the activity, however, it will be sufficient to have a general knowledge of the object. But given that human knowledge proceeds from the general to the specific, it would be reasonable to believe that a detailed knowledge of the power or activity might require a somewhat equally detailed knowledge of the object.

We can see how this would happen by thinking about the example of eating and food. A general idea of both eating and food might be this: eating is taking in other bodies and using them for growth and for energy for other living activities, and food is what can be taken in and used in this way.

Both the idea of eating and the idea of food here are fairly general, and due to their generality they leave open various questions. For example, why is not possible to live off air? Air is a body, and in physics it is in some sense convertible with energy, so it would not seem unreasonable if it could provide the matter and energy that we need in order to grow and to live in other ways.

The general account does not of course assert that this is a possibility, but neither does it deny the possibility. So if someone thinks that the general account tells them all that needs to be known about eating and food, they will not be unlikely to conclude that living off air should be a possibility. If someone drew this conclusion it would be an example of impatience with respect to truth. The example is not very realistic, of course, even if there are a few people who actually draw this conclusion, but this lack of realism is not because of some flaw in the idea of the knowledge of activities depending on the knowledge of objects, but just because most people already accept that air is not a kind of food, even if they do not know why it is not. So they already have a somewhat more detailed knowledge of the object, and therefore also of the activity.

Something similar will result with other powers of the soul, and with powers in general. In the case of knowledge in particular, a general knowledge of knowing will depend on a general knowledge of the known or knowable, and a detailed knowledge of knowing will depend on a detailed knowledge of the known or knowable. And just as in the example above, a general knowledge does not necessarily lead someone into error, but it can leave open questions, and one who is impatient for truth might draw detailed conclusions too soon. In this case, a likely result would be that someone confuses the mode of knowledge and the mode of the known, although this would not be the only way to fall into error.

Sean Collins discusses the history of science and its relationship with philosophy:

In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

While one might agree that it does not “do justice” to the question in the sense of discussing it adequately, we can see from what has been said that one cannot fully separate science from history. If we ask, “what is the nature of science,” we are asking about the nature of human knowing. In order to answer this, we require knowledge of knowing. But since knowing knowing in a detailed way depends on knowing the known in a detailed way, the question of whether history is essentially involved in knowing knowing depends on whether knowing the known in a detailed way is an essentially historical process.

Human beings and especially the life of an individual human being are very small parts of reality. One consequence is that the single lifetime of an individual is not enough to come to a detailed knowledge of the physical world without an essential dependence on the work of others, which dependence implies a historical process. The “astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure” is something that necessarily takes many human lifetimes to come to know, and is the collective work of the human race, not the work of an individual.

Speaking of Aristotle’s attitude towards matter in science, Collins says:

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

It is possible that Collins is too generous to Aristotle here, perhaps for the sake of his readers and for the sake of his own intellectual tradition, in the sense that to some extent, it seems likely that some of Aristotle’s conclusions are “impatient” in the way we have discussed earlier. Nonetheless his basic assertion is correct. Knowing the nature of knowledge in detail requires more knowledge of the knowable thing than Aristotle could have had at the time. As Collins says, this is “merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to develop.” And even if there is some intellectual impatience there, there is perhaps no more such impatience than is generally found in those who seek to understand reality.

 

Questions on Culture

The conclusion of the last post raises at least three questions, and perhaps others.

First, something still seems wrong or at least incomplete with the picture presented. It is one thing to suppose that things can tend to improve. It is another to suppose that they can get constantly worse. You can count to higher and higher numbers; but you cannot count down forever, because you reach a lower limit. In the same way, insofar as culture seems a necessary part of human life, there seems to be a limit on on how degraded a culture could become. So if there is a constant tendency towards the decline of culture, we should have already reached the lower limit.

Second, if one looks at history over longer time scales, it seems obvious that there are also large cultural improvements, as in the history of art and so on. It is not clear how this can happen if there is a constant tendency towards decline.

Third, we argued earlier that the world overall tends to be successful in the sense defined here. The conclusion of the last past seems to call this into question, at least in the sense that we cannot be sure: if things are improving in some ways, and getting worse in others, then it remains unclear whether things are overall getting better or worse. Or perhaps things are just staying the same overall.

It may be some time before I respond to these questions, so for now I will simply point out that their answers will evidently be related to one another.

 

Technology and Culture

The last two posts have effectively answered the question raised about Scott Alexander’s account of cultural decline. What could be meant by calling some aspects of culture “less compatible with modern society?” Society tends to change over time, and some of those changes are humanly irreversible. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, for some of those irreversible changes to stand in tension with various elements of culture. This will necessarily tend to cause cultural decay at least with respect to those elements, and often with respect to other elements of culture as well, since the various aspects of culture are related.

This happens in a particular way with changes in technology, although technology is not the only driver of such irreversible change.

It would be extremely difficult for individuals to opt out of the use of of various technologies. For example, it would be quite difficult for Americans to give up the use of plumbing and heating, and a serious attempt to do so might lead to illness or death in many cases. And it would be still more difficult to give up the use of clothes, money, and language. Attempting to do so, assuming that one managed to preserve one’s physical life, would likely lead to imprisonment or other forms of institutionalization (which would make it that much more difficult to abandon the use of clothes.)

Someone might well respond here, “Wait, why are you bringing up clothes, money, and language as examples of technology?” Clothes and money seem more like cultural institutions than technology in the first place; and language seems to be natural to humans.

I have already spoken of language as a kind of technology. And with regard to clothes and money, it is even more evident that in the concrete forms in which they exist in our world today they are tightly intertwined with various technologies. The cash used in the United States depends on mints and printing presses, actual mechanical technologies. And if one wishes to buy something without cash, this usually depends on still more complex technology. Similar things are true of the clothes that we wear.

I concede, of course, that the use of these things is different from the use of the machines that make them, or as in the case of credit cards, support their use, although there is less distinction in the latter case. But I deliberately brought up things which look like purely cultural institutions in order to note their relationship with technology, because we are discussing the manner in which technological change can result in cultural change. Technology and culture are tightly intertwined, and can never be wholly separated.

Sarah Perry discusses this (the whole post is worth reading):

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”

Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.

The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.

Now someone, arguing much in Chesterton’s vein, might say that this does not have to happen. If a technology is damaging in this way, then just don’t use it. The problem is that often one does not have a realistic choice not to use it, as in my examples above. And much more can one fail to have a choice not to interact with people who use the new technology, and interacting with those people will itself change the way that life works. And as Robin Hanson noted, there is not some human global power that decides whether or not a technology gets to be introduced into human society or not. This happens rather by the uncoordinated and unplanned decisions of individuals.

And this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards cultural decline. The constant progress of technology results, and results of necessity, in constant cultural decline. And thus we fools understand why the former days were better than these.

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.